Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Laura Jane Grace
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them
1How many minutes did your August gig at Four Seasons Total Landscaping (the infamous site of November 2020’s bizarre press conference from the Trump campaign) gig sell out in?
“Yes I got one right! That’s all I need. I can fail the rest now! It was a good vibe and a super-fun time, but if you strip away the context and take it at face-value, you’re playing in the parking lot of a landscaping company in Philadelphia next to a porn shop and a pawn shop, which felt like: ‘What?!’. It definitely left me with more questions than answers about how the [Rudy] Giuliani press conference happened. They’d have known from the second they showed up that this was the wrong location [allegedly they mistook it for the upscale Four Seasons Hotel], but they just owned it as completely intentional. That’s what tore a hole in the fabric of reality! I’m positive that Giuliani saw my gig in the news.”
2The cover of Against Me!’s 2013 ‘True Trans’ EP features Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. But which actor played the character?
“I don’t know! Of course, I know Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster – the main stars of the movie – but I’m sad to say I do not know the name of the actor who played Buffalo Bill.”
WRONG. It’s Ted Levine. Has anyone who’s ever received a namecheck in your songs given you any feedback?
“I know that Slash and Duff [McKagan] from Guns N’ Roses are aware of [Against Me!’s debut album] ‘Reinventing Axl Rose’, because I’ve seen a picture of them with someone holding the T-shirt. Otherwise, I’d like to think I’ve talked about Madonna enough in interviews that she’s somehow aware of my existence, like I’ve popped into her consciousness for a split-second. But for the most part, the people I’m referencing in my songs are probably not looking in this direction!”
In 2015, you teamed up with Miley Cyrus to perform a version of ‘True Trans Soul Rebel’. What was that like?
“I’d never seen an episode of Hannah Montana in my life, so my point of reference for Miley was that her dad Billy Ray had an inescapable hit with ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ when I was 11. Right before the opportunity came, I was doing some travelling and getting tattooed in Japan. On the plane, I was listening to the Nick Cave album [‘Push the Sky Away’] that has a lyric about Miley floating in her swimming pool. When I landed, I received the call about this opportunity which felt so weird, like reality jumping out of the headphones. But Miley invited me over to her house and we hung out with her and Joan Jett, played music, smoked weed and even petted her pet pig. She was awesome.”
3What did you burn onstage in 2016?
“My desire! No, my birth certificate.”
CORRECT. In Durham, North Carolina – in protest at the state’s discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ which prevents trans people from using bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex.
“As it was happening, there was a feeling of total panic at how quickly it went up in flames! I was thinking I should have had people prepared with fire extinguishers but it went out real quick and the show rolled on. People were shocked: ‘Oh m God, you burned your birth certificate?’, but I never used this thing in my entire life. I had to ask my mother to mail it to me because it had just been sitting in a file cabinet for however many years. Plus, the state will print you a new one if you write to them!”
4In 2016, which retailer ripped off Against Me! for a $700 leather jacket?
CORRECT. The clothing store used the name of the band along the jacket’s sleeve without permission. Was that a moment where you felt you’d gone mainstream?
“They’re like champagne problems! On one hand, you’re upset because it’s a huge corporation that’s ripping off your art, but on the other hand, you have to recognise that if you’re bitching about that to somebody, your problems sound pretty cushy. It’s absurd and there’s a level of flattery to it as well. At the same time, what pisses you off isn’t the idea they’re going to make some money off you, it’s just how tacky the jacket looks. It’s just a crime against fashion, so you have to stand up against it for those reasons.”
What’s the most memorable offer you’ve turned down?
“Recently it’s been from people wanting adapt my book [her memoir Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout] into a movie. I’ve taken the conversations, but ultimately, I’m sceptical and terrified about what you could possibly do with bringing my life story to a screen.”
So you wouldn’t like to see an eventual biopic?
“No (laughs). I would hate it. I feel like it would cause so many problems in my life and warp everything into this weird version that it’s not. But at the same time, I admit that it’s fascinating because back in the day, 20 years ago on tour, we’d joke about who we’d want to play us in the movie version of this. And everyone would come up with their most ridiculous answers – like Werner Herzog to play me. If somebody came to me with a guarantee that it would be the most surreal mind-fuck of a movie anybody had ever seen – with Werner Herzog playing me and Danny DeVito as Miley Cyrus – I would be on board with that, but I can’t imagine it happening any other way!”
5You recently released a surprise new solo EP, ‘At War With The Silverfish’. What total do you get if you add up the three numbers in its song titles?
“You get… 18?”
CORRECT. From the tracks ‘Three of Hearts’, ‘Lolo 13’ and ‘Yesterday Pt. II’.
“When the pandemic started, although I was crushed at having to cancel tours and you’re scared and feel like your life’s been swept away, there’s a realisation that the other part of what I do is writing and recording songs and that you have more time for that. After doing the ‘Stay Alive’ record last year, I decided to keep writing and see what happened. I didn’t want everything I’m doing right now to be framed by the pandemic, like ‘I’m trying to solve the pandemic with a song!’, so I ended up writing songs that were distractions from what was going on. Rather than overthinking ‘Where do these songs belong?’, I just wanted to share it with people and then I can move on mentally and think about the next songs.
“What I like most about ‘At War With The Silverfish’ is that it’s randomly written songs that’s like an open invitation to go anywhere I want after this. There’s no expectations. I could either jump right into an Against Me! record now or do another solo record that I can make as weird or different as I want. There’s no thread I have to follow.”
6Against Me! first appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2005. Who were his other guests?
“That’s a great question that I do not know the answer to! (Laughs)”
WRONG. You appeared alongside Amy Poehler and Tiger Woods.
“I was genuinely sad when the Conan show ended [this summer]. It hit me and made me realise it was the end of an era. It was such an honour to be on it, because as a young teen, I’d stay up and discover so many bands through watching it.”
7What is the name of Rise Against’s response song to Against Me!’s single ‘I Was a Teenage Anarchist’?
“(Laughs) I absolutely do not fucking care!”
WRONG. It’s ‘Architects’.
“I did hear it. It was a diss-track [that dismissively reused the original’s lyrics about political apathy]. I was like: ice-cold, y’all! (Laughs). It’s weird. We toured with them back in the day and it was great and we never had any problems with them. We were on the same label, Fat Records, for a while, and we’d see each other. Then when that song came out, I saw Tim [McIlrath, Rise Against frontman] backstage at a festival and he totally gave me the stare-down and the cold shoulder and I’m like: ‘Wait, are we really upset about punk rock things? (Laughs) Are you upset about a song I wrote? Is that what’s happening here?’”
Talking of punk feuds, when Against Me! were accused of ‘selling out’, you used to have people scrawl abuse on your van and try to beat you up. What did it feel like?
“It was a drag and a dark cloud that followed you around. It took a while as a kid to find a place [the punk scene] where you feel welcome and people accept you. And then it switches to where you walk into those places and are sure all those people want to fucking kill you now. You’re back at the start where you don’t feel welcome anywhere – not in where you came from and not the punk scene. You’re like an outcast among outcasts. It was isolating and brought down what should have ultimately been a great time.”
8What animal heads appear in Against Me!’s ‘From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer)’ video?
“There’s a rabbit? Is there a fox? No? Is there a bird of some sort – something with feathers? An owl? Shit!”
WRONG. There’s a rabbit, panda, horse, pig and a chicken.
“I always really liked that video but it feels like a lifetime ago.”
9Name all six tracks on Against Me!’s 1997 self-titled demo.
“Um – one was called ‘Same Old Song’. That’s it! That’s all I’ve got! (Laughs)”
WRONG. Apart from ‘Same Old Song’, you missed ‘The Price Of Freedom’, Does It Make A Difference?’, ‘In The Name Of What?’, ‘Disgust’ and ’24 Hours a Day’.
“That sounds right – I’ll believe you! (Laughs)”
If you could talk to the teenage you making that record, what advice would you give yourself?
“I’d say this is valuable in ways you do not understand yet. The work you’re doing has purpose and it will not mean immediate success in any way. It was a first effort and the stakes weren’t high. It was a flop and those songs sucked. Just believe me – they weren’t great songs! But it didn’t matter because just the value of setting a goal and achieving it was rewarding. And things come back to you in unexpected ways, whether it’s the second demo tape I did which sells for upwards of $15,00 on eBay and Discogs, or the fact that people would still talk to you about a song I wrote when I was 17 now I’m 40. That’s a form of magic.”
10Which two Cyndi Lauper songs have you covered?
“’Money Changes Everything’ and The Goonies theme.”
CORRECT. You recorded a version of the Brains’ ‘Money Changes Everything’ (which Lauper had a hit with in 1984), and joined her onstage in NYC for a punk-rock cover of ‘The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough’ in 2017.
“Phew! I started and ended on a high note! I was invited to do her Christmas special in NYC and she’s from a time in the ‘80s when pop stars felt like they existed in a different stratosphere. She’s so larger than life, she almost feels like a cartoon character, where it’s like they’re not real. So to be in their presence is like an out-of-body experience where you’re hyper-aware of it and examining them in real-life while also trying to pay attention to the song. She’s amazing and a genuine star.”
The verdict: 5/10
“A solid C+. I fully expected to do way worse!”
– ‘At War With The Silverfish’ EP is available now through Big Scary Monsters.